A critical stretch of Interstate 12 will get $25 million in federal funding to widen the bridge over the Tchefuncte River and add auxiliary lanes between La. 21 and U.S. 190, Parish President Pat Brister announced at the December Parish Council meeting.

The news, delivered in a phone call by U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise, was "the best birthday present I ever received," Brister said.

The widening project already was a top priority for Brister, but an accident that killed four in May lent an even greater sense of urgency, she said.

"It was emotional,” she said of the loss of life. “It just made us more determined to do whatever we needed to do.”

Brister said she couldn't stress enough how hard St. Tammany’s federal delegation worked to get the grant money. “They really went to bat for us,” she said.

U.S. Sens. Bill Cassidy and John Kennedy, and Scalise requested the money in a July 19 letter, and Scalise discussed the project with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in one-on-one meetings in August and November.

The total $36 million project includes a $7.2 million match from the parish and $3.8 million in state funds.

The work involves a 3.8-mile stretch of Interstate 12 that parish spokesman Ronnie Simpson called the most critical in relieving bottlenecks. It's also where the deadly accident happened. Scalise said DOTD figures show there have been more than 900 accidents in the section of I-12 targeted for improvements since 2013.

Additional lanes will be added to the Tchefuncte River bridge; at an estimated $15.5 million cost, that's the most expensive part of the project.

An east-bound lane will be added from La. 21 to the Tchefuncte with a cable barrier at a $5 million cost. Another east-bound lane will be added from the river to U.S. 190 with a cable barrier for $7.5 million; and an auxiliary eastbound lane will be constructed from the river to U.S. 190 for $3 million. 

An auxiliary westbound lane from U.S.190 to the river will be built for $1.95 million. The project also calls for a $2 million sound wall.

DOTD Secretary Shawn Wilson, who took questions at a news conference in the St. Tammany Parish Council chambers just before the December meeting, said bids could be let as early as November or December of next year and construction could begin as early as February 2020.

Wilson said he couldn’t estimate how long the work will take because bids will include two factors: cost and time.

The high volume of traffic — nearly 100,000 vehicles per day — is another factor because 24-hour work might not be possible, he said. Weather could also affect the pace of work.

Going through the environmental process, however, shouldn’t be a difficult hurdle because the work is within the interstate highway right of way, he added

Initially, this phase of the widening was part of larger project that Wilson said was pegged at costing about $70 million.

But dividing the work into two phases allowed the state to speed up the most pressing work. It also will mean the state won't have to secure as much funding to do the rest of the work, widening the interstate from U.S. 190 to La. 59, Wilson added.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.